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Zoomed in image of an illustration of the front of Leeds Grand Theatre in black pen by Joyce Irwin.

World Theatre Day: Collaboration in the face of adversity

This World Theatre Day, we wanted to shine a light on the importance of community to the Arts, especially during challenging times. It only took a trip to the archives for us to discover that coming together has always been seen as the answer when attempts have been made to tear us apart.

Written by Sarah Jewers


No stranger to a struggle

It’s no secret that Arts and Culture are struggling. There were many problems before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the closures of important cultural spaces such as theatres during lockdown only heightened issues because revenue was halted. Local authorities are the largest investors in local arts venues, but with cuts to local government funding, there is less money for them to spend; between 2009/10 and 2020/21, per-person cultural funding was reduced by 50% in England. Combine this with soaring utility bills in theatres and the cost-of-living crisis leaving the general public with much less in their pocket to spend on activities like going to the theatre, we’re living through a scary time, especially for the Arts.

However, we’re a sector that is no stranger to challenging times. Through the last few decades of the 20th Century, there was a shift away from public subsidy for the Arts, towards corporate sponsorship. In the 1980s, the Arts Council found itself under a lot of pressure trying to match the needs of organisations with its restricted funding – the Council’s responsibilities were slimmed, and the number of organisations that it supported halved. At the same time, the Government made several changes to the local government structure here in the UK, and the responsibility of looking after the Arts was being passed around, funding was being cut and therefore, theatres were at risk of closure.

A brochure advert from the West Yorkshire Metropolitan Country Council reading: West Yorkshire Arts in Peril. The Government's plans to abolish West Yorkshire and the other Metropolitan County Council's represent the greatest threat to the Arts for years. West Yorkshire alone gives £300,000 a year including £175,000 to Opera North, to support the Arts in West Yorkshire. If West Yorkshire County Council is abolished, the Government advises theatres to seek aid from the private sector or from the District Councils. This is considered unrealistic by Arts bodies and local authorities. If you are concerned about the future of the Arts, write to your MP. The address to write to is House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA.

A theatre brochure advert from the early 1980s by West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council. Credit: West Yorkshire Archive Service.

Doing it the Yorkshire way

“The ability of all of us to ‘sell’ our theatres as much as possible is desperately hampered by lack of cash. This sort of collective effort could well be terrific value for money.” Arnold Elliman, The Crucible General Manager, 23 January 1981.

In 1981, theatres in Yorkshire decided they needed to band together to overcome their common struggle. In letters we found in our archive, a leaflet was designed to market the theatres as a collective and was going to be distributed by the Yorkshire and Humberside Tourist Board. This Yorkshire Theatres Marketing Campaign was planned through a series of meetings in early 1981, and our records suggest that it was going to launch in the Autumn of 1981. The meeting on 30 March 1981 was attended by:

York Theatre Royal (Chair)
Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
Kirklees Leisure Services
Hull New Theatre
The Alhambra, Bradford
The Futurist, Scarborough
Bridlington Spa
Leeds Playhouse
The Crucible, Sheffield
Harrogate Theatre
City Varieties
Leeds Grand Theatre
Hull Truck Theatre (formerly Humberside Theatre, Hull)
Arts Council
Yorkshire and The Humberside Tourist Board

Mock of an illustrated map of the Yorkshire theatres to appear in the Yorkshire Theatres Marketing Campaign leaflet. Each theatre is indicated by the Comedy and Tragedy masks. Text in the top left reads: All the world's a stage.

A mock up of the illustrated map to appear in the Yorkshire Theatres Marketing Campaign. Credit: West Yorkshire Archive Service.

From the plans we’ve seen, the leaflet was to contain an illustrated map of Yorkshire, marking out the different theatres with comedy and tragedy masks, and sketches of the theatres’ exteriors by Ilkley artist Joyce Irwin. The plans were simple but would have highlighted how incredible the theatre and live performance offer is in Yorkshire.

Sadly, we haven’t been able to find confirmation that this campaign went ahead. We can only theorise whether it would have been successful and whether it would have set a precedent for collaboration in the future. However, we can use it for inspiration.

Mock up of part of the leaflet with a header reading Yorkshire Theatres with indications of where text and images could go.

A mock of part of the Yorkshire Theatres Marketing Campaign leaflet. Credit: West Yorkshire Archive Service.

An illustration of the front of Leeds Grand Theatre in black pen by Joyce Irwin.

An illustration of Leeds Grand Theatre by Joyce Irwin. Credit: West Yorkshire Archive Service.

The front cover of the rusty orange booklet that the archive material from the Yorkshire Theatres Marketing Campaign were kept in.

The booklet holding together the Yorkshire Theatres Marketing Campaign archive material. Credit: West Yorkshire Archive Service.

A nod to the Yorkshire Theatres Marketing Campaign

At Leeds Heritage Theatres, we pride ourselves on our history. The ghosts, the royalty, The Good Old Days and the magic. But how much do you know about some of the other theatres that were part of the Yorkshire Theatres Marketing Campaign plans?

A positive spin

It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom for World Theatre Day. Despite having different journeys, each of these theatres tells a story of resilience, adaption and survival. If history can show us anything, it’s that whatever the struggle, theatres often overcome it, particularly with the support of their patrons.

So, this World Theatre Day, if you can, support your local theatre either by buying tickets to a show, buying gift vouchers for friends or becoming a member, and make sure we can continue this rich history of theatre in Yorkshire.